As a child, the author fired rounds with his father and believed owning weapons made people safer. Here's what changed his mind.
I grew up with guns around the house. Firearms were an integral part of everyday life, as commonplace as bicycles and silverware. I always expected to hand my guns down to my children, a generational rite of passage among the men in my family. But I can no longer ignore the obvious: The conditions that once allowed owning a gun to become a rite of passage for American men have changed.
My dad was a champion marksman and gun collector, and I was a 6 year-old boy version of Saoirse Ronan's reindeer-hunting Finnish girl in last year's movie Hanna. By the time I entered fourth grade, I knew how to field strip, clean, and reassemble several types of revolvers, semi-automatic pistols and rifles. I knew wadcutters from hollow points. I knew how to ease my breath and relax my trigger pull for a better shot.
As a kid, I associated guns with safety, the right to live in your own home without being afraid.
One of my earliest memories is of the gun range. I was five, maybe six, as my dad drove our family there in our potato-brown Volkswagen Rabbit. It was very early in the morning and bitter cold inside. When my dad handed me his revolver, I turned to face him and he exploded at me. Never point a gun at anyone! Always point the gun at the target! That instruction would eventually evolve into never pointing a gun at anyone whom I didn't intend to kill.
To a kid, a gun range is an inhospitable place. Imagine a giant concrete room, lit by a few lonely bulbs, the floor littered with brass shell casings. You can't see the other shooters behind the booth's sidewalls, so each gunshot catches you by surprise. You can feel the physical force of the shots through the displaced air. The recoil can cause the gun to leap up and back with each shot. If it's a semi-automatic, the spent shells eject from the chamber smoking hot, sometimes shocking you with a quick sizzle if they hit your hands or face.
The cumulative effect is an unrelenting jumpiness that must be overcome in order to hit the target, a twitchiness that remains even after you're driving home in the now-surreal sunlight. The not unpleasant tang of gunpowder stays in your nostrils.
When we got home, my dad would immediately set out cloths, solvents, and gun oil. Like samurai, we laid out each weapon, checking to see if it was loaded and then taking it apart step by step. We'd wipe the powder residue from the firing pins and the cylinders. We'd push solvent-soaked cotton squares through the barrels till we could see the tiny spiral grooves inside, then used an oil-soaked square to set the surface reflective and perfect.
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Piece by piece, we'd reassemble each weapon, the parts joining with delicious metallic clicks and ka-chaks, the satisfying sounds you hear in movies when someone pulls back the slide on a pistol to rack a new bullet. The object-oriented and tinkering part of the male experience was deeply pleasing. After firing these weapons, their awe-inspiring power could now be appreciated on a different level.
As a kid, I associated guns with safety, the right to live in your own home without being afraid. It was ingrained in me early that outsiders were not to be trusted. We had a fallout shelter beneath the house, a Blair Witch hideout rank with musty smells and walls lined with canned food and mason jars. My dad jerry-rigged a wood panel with a holster so he could hide one of his revolvers under the bed ruffle by his dangling hand, loaded with five bullets so the firing pin rested on an empty chamber. (If the gun was dropped, this meant the pin wouldn't accidentally fire a bullet. Gun safety, you see.)
I became an adult who felt uncomfortable in a domicile that didn't have a weapon in it. I imagined the horror stories from the NRA's magazine, The American Rifleman - stories culled from the pages of newspapers of home intruders, usually, foiled with the help of a firearm - and wished for a gun of my own. When I finally got one, at 20, I was able to sleep soundly. When I heard creaks or strange noises in the Chicago house that I rented with a handful of roommates, I wasn't afraid. I felt empowered and in control.
At first, I found it difficult to reconcile all of that with this country's increasing numbers of violent murders. There was the Virginia Tech shooter. And the woman who was denied tenure and blasted several of her colleagues at the University of Alabama. The Columbine killers, of course. The D.C. sniper. The Fort Hood killer. The term "going postal," a reference to a rash of postmen and office workers who shot up their workplaces in the '80s and '90s.
Never mind the drive-bys, the accidental homicides, the random schoolchildren hit by stray gunfire. The statistics began to speak for themselves: Every year there are 30,000 gun deaths and 300,000 gun-related assaults in the U.S. As PBS's Bill Moyers points out in an excellent commentary, far more Americans have been casualties of domestic gunfire than have died in all our wars combined.